On Saturday, December 4, the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts was privileged to host Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, Archbishop Emeritus of Saint Louis, and Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. The cardinal, a long-time friend of the College, chose the occasion to issue a major address on “on the nature and ends of Catholic higher education from the Magisterium of the Venerable Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.”
Burke warned his listeners, “According to the ancient canonical wisdom, corruptio optimi pessima est, ‘the corruption of the best is the worst.’ Sadly, we have witnessed the truth of the axiom in so many Catholic colleges and universities in our nation, which once gave pride of place to their Catholic identity and the Catholic life of the campus, but now are Catholic in name only, usually qualifying their Catholic identity by another name, for example, calling themselves a Catholic university in the Franciscan or Jesuit tradition. What the tradition, with a small ‘t,’ means, in practice can have little, if anything, to do with Tradition, with a capital ‘t.’ The word, ‘Catholic,’ in the name of a university has its full qualification, that is, it accepts no modifiers.”
Placing himself in stark opposition to the “Land O’Lakes” tradition in American Catholic higher education—which prizes institutional autonomy over cooperation with local bishops—Burke said: “The situation in which the Catholic university views the Bishop as a suspect or outright unwelcome partner in the mission of Catholic higher education, unless the Bishop is willing to betray the duties of his office as the chief teacher of the faith in the territory in which the Catholic university has its seat by endorsing the Catholic identity of the university without regard for the high demands of such an identity, is totally anomalous.”
Citing Pope John Paul II’s too often-neglected document Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Burke reminded his listeners that the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts is one of the few U.S. Catholic colleges that cheerfully comply with it. Burke noted the work of Thomas More College by saying, “It is my hope that my little reflection will help us all to see more clearly the critical importance of the Catholic university and specifically of The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts to the Church and the world in our time.”
Dr. William Fahey, President of Thomas More College, said, “To have Thomas More College’s fidelity to the Catholic Church and the Western tradition recognized by such a scholar and leader is more than gratifying, it is humbling. This is greatly encouraging as we pursue our mission in such adverse times. It was an especial grace to have his eminence with us for his first official public speech as Cardinal.”
Citing the Vatican II document Gravissimum Educationis, Burke continued by underlining “the importance which the Church has consistently assigned to Catholic higher education, in order that ‘the convergence of faith and reason in the one truth may be seen more clearly.’” As Pope Benedict has written, “Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom.” (Spe Salvi, 23) Thus, “the Catholic university which is true to her identity will help students to be strong in giving an account of their faith in their vocation in life, whether it be the married life, the dedicated single life, the consecrated life or the ordained priesthood, and in whatever field of human endeavor they engage, resisting the secularist dictatorship which would exclude all religious discourse from the professions and from public life in general,” Burke warned.
“Without in any way neglecting the acquisition of useful knowledge, a Catholic University is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God,” said Burke. “In a society which is marked by a virulent secularism which threatens the integrity of every aspect of human endeavor and service, for example, medicine, law, government and higher education itself, the service of the Catholic university is more needed than ever. How tragic that the very secularism which the Catholic university should be helping its students to battle and overcome has entered into several Catholic universities, leading to the grievous compromise of their high mission.”
Burke continued, “At the Catholic university, students should be equipped, through their study and research, to address the truth of the Decalogue and of the Golden Rule to their own personal lives and to the life of the society in which they live. At the Catholic university, the very manner of study and research should manifest the bankruptcy of the abuse of human life and human sexuality, which has come to be standard on many university campuses, and the bankruptcy of the violation of the inviolable dignity of human life, of the integrity of marriage, and of the right order of our relationship to one another and to the world, in general, which is the trademark of our culture, a culture of violence and death.”
Citing Pope Benedict, Burke said that the answer to such a culture lies in somewhat surprising place: “the study of metaphysics which uncovers the nature of truth which, in turn, necessarily forms us in the pursuit of the moral good.” Burke said further, “Given the importance of the teaching of Sacred Theology at the Catholic university, whether it be through a faculty or chair or designated course of studies, special care should be given to the curriculum and the hiring of professors prepared to lead students in the study of the Scriptures and the Tradition, especially the study of the Fathers of the Church and the approved theologians, above all, Saint Thomas Aquinas.” Every student at Thomas More College studies metaphysics, ethics, and politics—alongside six semesters of sacred theology grounded in Scriptures and Patristics. The lead philosophy instructor at Thomas More College is Walter Jay Thompson, who helped found and served as Vice President and Academic Dean of the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria—established at the request of Pope John Paul II, with Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna as its Grand Chancellor.
Burke continued, “The first and chief teacher at every institution of Catholic higher education is Our Lord Jesus Christ Who is the fullness of the revelation of God to us. A Catholic college or university, at which Jesus Christ alive in His Church is not taught, encountered in the Sacred Liturgy and its extension through prayer and devotion, and followed in a life of virtue is not worthy of the name….The presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the campus of the Catholic college and university is not something additional to or even extraneous to the pursuit of truth. It is, rather, He alone Who inspires, guides and disciplines professors and students, so that they remain faithful in the pursuit and do not fall prey to the temptations which Satan cleverly offers to corrupt us whenever we set out to attain a great good.” Annually since 2009, Thomas More College has been consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in public liturgical rites, to the accompaniment of singing by a student choir that gained its skill by singing the Liturgy of the Hours daily on campus.
Cardinal Burke concluded his speech by encouraging listeners to follow the example of St. Thomas More.
“Saint Thomas More, the patron saint of our college, steadfastly, in the face of imprisonment and execution, listened to the voice of God, rather than the voices of men who would have had him act according to a human way of thinking, alienated from the wisdom of God,” said Burke. “At his trial on July 1, 1535, Saint Thomas More held firmly to the living Tradition of the Church, which forbade him, in conscience, to acknowledge King Henry VIII with the title of Supreme Head of the Church. When, during his trial, the Chancellor rebuked him, citing the acceptance of the title by so many bishops and nobles of the land, Thomas More replied: ‘My lord, for one bishop of your opinion I have a hundred saints of mine; and for one parliament of yours, and God knows of what kind, I have all the General Councils for 1,000 years, ….’ When the Duke of Norfolk accused him of malice in his response, Thomas More responded: ‘What I say is necessary for discharge of my conscience and satisfaction of my soul, and to this I call God to witness, the sole Searcher of human hearts.’ Rightly, Thomas More declared on the scaffold before his execution: ‘I die the king’s good servant, and God’s first.’ The Saint served his king well by obeying God Who revealed His truth to him through Thomas More’s conscience, instructed and formed by the example of the saints of the Church and by her Magisterium.”
Burke concluded, “Let us continue to pray and work so that our college under the patronage of Saint Thomas More will form its graduates to cultivate, throughout their lifetime, the divine wisdom and truth which they pursue through their studies, so that they place always first in their lives the truth and love, into which God leads them through their conscience, formed by the Magisterium of the Church, our Mother and Teacher. My reflection is offered to assist us all in seeking always the truth and love by which we serve others and our world well by serving God first.”